Saturday, February 18, 2012

Where Once There Were Thousands, Now There Are Hundreds: Has Teh Revolution Run Its Course?

Police on Oak St, January 28, 2012, enveloped in their own tear gas.

Those who follow the Occupy Movement have noticed something: the crowds who gather for Occupy marches and rallies have diminished, seeming to evaporate altogether in some locations.

It's especially noticeable in New York City, where a few hundred may be hailed as a good turn out for some Occupy action or other, but at one time, "a few hundred" would have been the size of a modest Working Group; GA was being regularly attended by thousands, and in at least one case, when GA was held at Washington Square Park, attendance was in the tens of thousands.

The various factions in Oakland still smarting from the events of J28 and still hurling condemnations and denunciations at the Insurrectionists who caused "this mess," point to the fact that while the Port Shutdown and the General Strike drew tens of thousands of marchers and rally attendees, the J28 Move In "only attracted hundreds." That was a media report that was widely spread among the Oakland dissidents, though it didn't seem right to participants or observers like me.

Media traditionally lowballs crowd sizes for unapproved rebel actions and inflates them for approved actions. For a time, the "hundreds" in attendance at the J28 actions was taken as a rough but somewhat accurate estimate, for if you are in a crowd, it is difficult to estimate totals, and if you are outside the crowd but your point of view is restricted (as was the case for those who saw the events unfold on livestream like me) you won't be able to estimate with any accuracy, either.

Yet even with a restricted viewpoint, it was clear to me that there were well more than "hundreds" at The Battle of Oak Street; it looked like much closer to 1,000 to me, and it wasn't until later when I was able to look at videos shot from other viewpoints that I was able to confirm that number and conclude that the number was actually a good deal more than 1,000 at the Battle.

Just so, I was unable to gauge crowd size for the march to the Oakland Auditorium (Kaiser Convention Center) from the restricted point of view of my vantage watching livestream, nor was I able to tell from the video perspective what the crowd size was for the evening FTP march that was eventually corralled in front of the YMCA and arrested en masse. Again, reports said "hundreds." Initially, the number of arrests at the Y was lowballed as well. First it was under 100, then low 100's, and not until the next day was something close to an accurate number produced: 400. Given the fact that so many marchers had escaped, either through the Y itself (thanks to the kindness of staff) or over fences in the kettle area, it's clear there were well more than the number of marchers arrested participating in the march. When I saw the videos of the Escape From the Kettle at Nineteenth and Telegraph, it was clear that thousands had been trapped, not "hundreds", but none of that perspective was available at the time the events were taking place.

At the time, an estimate of "thousands" (most commonly 2,000) was competing with an initial estimate of "hundreds" (most commonly 400-500) . Because the lower estimate came first and was more widely broadcast in the media, it became the one many people accepted as "true" regardless of any higher estimate produced later. This is how the corporate-state propaganda apparatus is supposed to work. It may not be working quite as well as it once did, but it still works well enough to convince those most susceptible to media propaganda and conditioning to accept its lies as "close enough."

Nevertheless, "thousands" of participants in the J28 Move In activities -- including the thousands who stuck it out for the Battles -- is a significant reduction from the tens of thousands who participated in the Occupy Oakland actions last year. In New York, the decline in participant numbers has been even steeper, from tens of thousands regularly to a few dozen to a few hundred from time to time now.

What happened?

One would think it is obvious, but apparently not. The number of people who actively participate in any Movement or protest action is going to fluctuate, sometimes wildly. People base their participation on the cause, of course, but also on their ability at the moment to participate and the likelihood of a "crackdown" official response. Few activists really want to be shot with less-lethal munitions, let's face it. At any given time, few are willing to be arrested for the Cause.

It's human nature to avoid conflict if possible.

Police started firing at the crowd in Oakland when they reached the Oakland Auditorium and succeeded in pulling down the fence around part of the site. Police had been harassing and threatening the marchers since they left the plaza in front of City Hall. Police continued to follow and harrass the marchers after they left the Convention Center site (after they had been fired on), and the crowd was initially kettled on Oak St between 10th and 12th Streets in front of the Oakland Museum a couple of blocks away. While orders to disperse were issued, there was -- as would be the case throughout the day's Battles -- no exit from the kettle. There was nowhere to disperse, in other words.

That's when the shield-bearers went into action in self-defense.

Their self-defensive action has been called a "provocation" -- which of course it was. Defending oneself from official violence is always provocative, sometimes intentionally so. Self-defense is often condemned by nonviolence purists as well because, according to their read of history, Martin and Mahatma wouldn't do that. Actually, they used other forms of self-defense than the ones on display in Oakland, but the claim that they did not engage in self-defensive tactics is false. The tactics they did use were just as provocative to their oppressors as the makeshift shields used in Oakland.

Nevertheless, whether "provoked" or not, it was clear to me that the police were going to fire on the crowd no matter what they did or didn't do. The only way to avoid police violence that day was not to have a march or rally or any public demonstration and attempt at taking a vacant building at all.

It's a conditioned response of police and officials in Oakland: crowds gather with a stated intention to "defy the law" and they will be fired on. And there will be mass injuries and arrests.

Knowing as much -- Oaklanders have been living under these quasi-martial law conditions for decades -- the number of people who will willingly put their personal safety at jeopardy for any Cause is limited. What struck me and other observers was that so many were willing on January 28. Not only were they willing, they stuck it out to the end. Many of those who couldn't or wouldn't put themselves at personal risk nevertheless cheered and aided the marchers from the relative safety of their homes and apartments along the way.

But what about the tens of thousands who marched to the port?

Or the tens of thousands who assembled in Washington Square when GAs at Liberty Plaza became too huge?

Where have those people gone? And wouldn't they come back if the Occupy Movement ceased this constant conflict with the police? Wouldn't they come back if Occupy were "nicer" -- the way it used to be?

It depends. They might. Or they might not. The initial popularity of Occupy Wall Street and the hundreds of autonomous Occupys that arose spontaneously afterwards was not based on its being "nice" or non-confrontational. In fact, as I've said, confrontation and militance was part of the fabric of Occupy from the outset. So was law-breaking and defiance of authority. In other words, while some aspects of Occupy were definitely welcoming -- and yes, "nice" -- much of its activism and direct action was confrontational, defiant and militant. The whole point of taking and holding public (and sometimes private) space for public use by Occupy is a militant, defiant, and confrontational act. It isn't "nice." In point of fact, it is against the law.

The "niceness" of Occupy wasn't the popular draw; it was its potential for effectiveness. That potential was realized far more quickly than I think anyone anticipated. The topic of "The National Conversation" was overturned from Deficit Hysteria and Austerity Above All to the ruinous economic injustices that have been allowed and encouraged through private sector greed and public sector complicity. It happened over the course of a couple of months of intense and persistent activism, initially centered in New York but spreading quickly from there all around the world.

There is almost no precedent for this sort of thing in global history.

The trigger events in North Africa and Southern Europe have led to startling changes in governments, and yet the issues are unresolved; The Revolutions there have either not got underway in earnest (Europe, eg) or have been going in circles and feeding on themselves (North Africa and now parts of the Middle East).

The closest recent parallels to the potentials of Occupy were the upheavals in Eastern Europe that led to the break up of the Soviet Union, agitation for Democracy that was crushed in China, and the liberation of the Philippines from the Marcos dictatorship among other surprising developments. (I will skip the CT about all that for the moment...)

All of those precedents utilized approximately the same tactics: hundreds, then thousands, then tens or hundreds of thousands or even a million or more people assembled in the main square of the capital demanding reform; when genuine reform was not granted, they demanded the end of the regime. They refused to leave the square. In most places where these events unfolded, the police or troops refused to drive the people out of the square, nor would they fire on them. Even in China, initially, they would not fire on the demonstrators in Tienanmen Square. They only followed the orders to do so after a number of gruesome incidents in which troops were brutally murdered (following, it was said, incidents in which members of the crowd at or near Tienanmen were killed by troops; accounts differ.)

These uprisings all worked approximately the same way against brittle dictatorships; the Soviet Union and its empire disintegrated under the pressure. The Marcos dictatorship collapsed and fled. China survived intact and in some ways stronger after the Tienanmen Uprising. The demonstrations were violently crushed, but the apparatus of state was shaken enough to make substantial, indeed fundamental, changes in its operations and economic policies, to the point of essentially abandoning Communism as an organizing principle and adopting one of the most vigorous interpretations of Capitalism seen since the 19th Century.

The ironic upshot of all of those previous Revolutions was that the principles of Neo-Liberal Capitalist economics were installed practically everywhere -- to the detriment of the People in most cases -- and a highly managed form of crypto-democracy was installed in place of the fraudulent Communist "People's Democracies" for political purposes.

China skipped that step. Probably just as well...

The current Revolutionary fervor abroad derives somewhat from the uprisings of the '80's and early '90's, but in the United States there is no general sense of conducting that kind of uprising. There is instead a widespread sense that the economic and political systems of the USA are intimately intertwined, they are broken, and they cannot be reformed. Thus, there is no demand for reform. Nor is there a demand that, failing reform, the regime step down. There is no demand for democracy, there is instead the widespread practice of direct democracy in each autonomous Occupy, as a demonstration but not a demand.

To the extent there is a demand of Authority by Occupy it is to be left alone: stop the assaults, stop the arrests, stop the evictions. Stop the systemic violence against the People. Just. Stop.

I have a hard time imagining an ultimately more powerful message from the People to the Rulers.

Just stop it.

We see how crazy this sort of thing makes the Rulership of Europe as it applies ever more insane -- and insatiable -- demands on Greece. As if to say, "No, we will not Stop! We are Mad! We don't care what you think! We will do as we choose! You can't stop us! You can't! You can't!"

Yes, well.

There comes a time when a man gets mad, Ma (Grapes of Wrath); not crazy-mad, Righteously Angry.

And when that time comes, everything stops.

The mass march and rally approach to reform does not work anymore. There will continue to be marches and there will continue to be rallies, of course, but they cannot lead to change; the change will come when everything "stops."

We're not quite to that point, not yet. Our comrades in Greece are finding that even the General Strikes they have been engaging in for years have not stopped the insane march of Europe's Mad Rulers. No. Instead, they are seeing that the more the resistance from the Greek People, the greater the Madness of their Rulers.

So instead of more public displays of resistance, the next strategy will be the "Days of Absence." It has proved to be remarkably effective in some places -- like Arizona and Alabama and others -- where anti-immigrant hysteria was whipped to a fever pitch and led to the... absence... of the scapegoated Other.

In the end, it is not the mass rally or the march that precipitates the necessary changes in the Rulership. It is the absence of cooperation with their madness.

What is emerging from the Winter Hibernation of Occupy is quite a different creature than initially appeared. It has some of the same characteristics, but the expression is quite different, much as a butterfly contains within it some of the characteristics of the caterpillar but is not at all the same creature.

Teh Revolution has not run its course. It has barely begun.

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